Trey Gowdy vs. PolitiFact
“Gowdy has a point that he’s still waiting on quite a few documents, but it goes too far to say he hasn’t received a “single, solitary scrap of paper.” We rate his claim Mostly False.”
—PolitiFact, from a May 21, 2015 fact check of Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
PolitiFact takes Rep. Gowdy out of context, resulting in an unsupported conclusion.
On May 15, 2015, Fox News interviewed House Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy (R, S.C.). Gowdy used his on-air time to stress the State Department’s failure to supply documents from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top advisers and senior staff in response to a December 2014 request and a March 2015 subpoena. PolitiFact subsequently focused on part of Gowdy’s statement and published a fact check on May 21, 2015.
PolitiFact gave a “Mostly False” rating to Gowdy’s claim “I have not gotten a single, solitary scrap of paper” in response from the State Department.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
To properly fact check Gowdy’s statement, one needs to know what set of documents he referred to during his television appearance. We’ll first look at the context of Gowdy’s television appearance. Then we’ll look at and critique PolitiFact’s methods and conclusion.
Gowdy on Fox News
A fact-checker’s look at the context involves looking for clues to the subject’s topic. We found no instances where Gowdy talked about Secretary Clinton’s emails. We found three instances during Gowdy’s segment where he emphasized he was talking about emails from Clinton’s senior staff and closest advisers (bold emphasis added):
“Bill, it took them two years, as you remember, to comply with a request for ARB documents and we asked them in November for the emails related to some of Secretary Clinton’s top counselors and advisers. That was November of 2014.”
“My members have lots of questions. So, part of those questions involve her circle of advisers and what was happening in Libya and Benghazi before the attacks and during the attacks certainly the talking points afterwards.”
“If she’s insistent on coming once, certainly she would understand, that once has to be really productive and constructive, which means we need the emails from the people that were advising you while you were Secretary of State.”
Finally, let’s look at the immediate context of the claim PolitiFact elected to grade on its trademarked “Truth-O-Meter”:
“There’s a conscious decision not to cooperate with a legit legitimate Congressional inquiry. And, and, and again, my tools are somewhat limited. We can have public hearings, we can put public pressure on them. But we’ve already tried a subpoena. And, and I don’t want the drama of a floor fight over being held in contempt of Congress. That is a distraction. Your viewers don’t want that. I want the documents. I don’t want the drama. I want the documents. And they’ve had half a year, and I’ve not gotten a single solitary scrap of paper.”
The entire context of Gowdy’s television appearance, as it relates to documents the House Benghazi Committee wants from the State Department, concerns emails from Clinton’s top advisers and senior staff. The evidence leaves no reasonable doubt on this point. Gowdy’s appearance emphasized that the committee wants emails from Secretary Clinton’s senior staff and top aides before having Clinton testify.
The PolitiFact angle
PolitiFact’s evaluation of Gowdy’s statement took a different path than ours.
PolitiFact quickly charged Gowdy with a discrepancy based on the State Department’s partial response to the Benghazi Committee’s document requests:
There’s no denying that the Benghazi committee doesn’t have all the documents it wants and not by the committee’s desired timeline. But it’s inaccurate to say they haven’t received “a single, solitary scrap of paper” related to their November request.
PolitiFact proceeds as though Gowdy never bothered to distinguish between requests for Secretary Clinton’s emails and the emails of her senior staff and top advisers. The emails the State Department delivered were from Clinton’s account, as PolitiFact explained:
After the hearing, on Feb. 13, 2015, the State Department produced about 300 emails to and from Clinton, totaling about 850 pages.
Of course, this didn’t completely satisfy the November request, because it didn’t include the emails of Clinton’s top aides and senior staff.
Of course, if Gowdy was talking about emails from Clinton’s top aides and senior staff, as the context shows he was doing, the Clinton emails do not count as a response to the committee’s request for emails from the top aides and senior staff. For clarity, however, we emphasize that the State Department says the Clinton emails it has turned over to the Benghazi Committee include emails to and from top aides and senior staff.
PolitiFact tried to strength its case against Gowdy a number of ways. We’ll address each in its turn.
Jamal Ware and the March subpoena
PolitiFact contacted Benghazi Committee spokesperson Jamal Ware and reported he said Gowdy’s claim about the lack of documents was in reference to the March subpoena. PolitiFact does not publish all of its interview material, so we cannot confirm PolitiFact’s report. However, we count Ware’s statement as irrelevant even if PolitiFact reported it correctly, since the context of Gowdy’s remarks makes his subject clear.
“Six months to comply”
PolitiFact dismissed Ware’s alleged claim about the March subpoena for a different reason. PolitiFact noted Gowdy said the State Department had six months to comply with the Committee. PolitiFact reasoned that the March subpoena occurred much less than six months before, so Gowdy was talking about the November document request, including the request for Clinton’s emails.
But it doesn’t follow that Gowdy was talking about the November document request as a whole, particularly when the context shows he was talking specifically about emails from Secretary Clinton’s senior staff and top aides. The separate request for the latter emails also occurred in November, giving the State Department more than six months to respond.
The Clinton emails were the top priority
PolitiFact notes that the Benghazi Committee made obtaining the Clinton emails its top priority. While that observation has some bearing on justifying the State Department’s failure to produce emails from Clinton’s top aides and senior advisers, it doesn’t matter as to the accuracy of Gowdy’s claim of no documents in six months.
“More than two-thirds of the Clinton emails are communications with her senior staff”
We’re not sure where PolitiFact picked up this factoid, based on the source list accompanying its fact check. While it shouldn’t surprise anybody if most of the Clinton emails were to or from Clinton’s senior staff, we’ve already addressed this issue: The committee should take for granted that asking for Clinton’s emails will net some email from senior staff and aides. The additional request for the emails of Clinton’s senior staff and aides looks to acquire email the committee would not otherwise obtain by merely asking for Clinton’s emails.
“Some senior staff emails pertinent to the November request were included in earlier document releases”
PolitiFact notes that earlier document releases included emails from senior staff. While those emails may count as technically “pertinent,” the committee obviously was not focused on obtaining already-released emails. PolitiFact notes that those emails were turned over before the November document request, so it makes no sense to count them as an exception to Gowdy’s claim of receiving no documents from the State Department.
PolitiFact’s fact check goes on to discuss some of the difficulties the State Department faces in responding to the House committee’s document requests. PolitiFact strikes some balance by including the Benghazi Committee’s charge that the State Department’s chosen mode of response creates some of those difficulties. But with its weak case against Gowdy complete, PolitiFact reaches its conclusion:
The House Benghazi Committee’s own report notes that in response to a November 2014 request for emails from Clinton and her top aides, the State Department has produced 850 pages of Clinton’s emails. The State Department hasn’t yet produced Clinton’s staffers’ emails in response to this request. The department argues that Clinton’s emails were top priority, that many of the staffers’ emails have been provided in previous document requests, and that their response time is limited by department resources.
Gowdy has a point that he’s still waiting on quite a few documents, but it goes too far to say he hasn’t received a “single, solitary scrap of paper.” We rate his claim Mostly False.
Knowing as we do that Gowdy clearly referred to the need for emails from Clinton’s senior staff and top aides, PolitiFact’s conclusion makes it obvious that PolitiFact took Gowdy out of context. PolitiFact correctly points out that the House Benghazi Committee’s report says the State Department turned over 850 pages of Clinton’s emails. But that’s not all the report says (bold emphasis added):
On February 13, 2015, the Department produced approximately 300 emails to and from the former Secretary during her time as the head of the State Department. However, the State Department has yet to produce a single document pursuant to the remaining portions of the November request.
This report cannot count as a smoking gun. Contrary to PolitiFact, the Benghazi Committee report completely backs up Gowdy’s claim when the latter is taken in context. The State Department’s letter also confirms the facts as Gowdy reported them.
We emailed the writer and the editor of the PolitiFact fact check (Lauren Carroll and Angie Drobnic Holan, respectively) on May 22 to point out context missing from the fact check. We asked for comment and suggested they correct the item. We will update our fact check if we hear from PolitiFact.
PolitiFact blatantly took Rep. Gowdy’s statement out of context. He indisputably narrowed the scope of his claim about the State Department’s responsiveness to the release of emails from Clinton’s senior staff and top advisers.
“it goes too far to say he hasn’t received a ‘single, solitary scrap of paper.'”
We don’t see how Gowdy could have said any more clearly he was talking about emails from Clinton’s staff and advisers, not from Clinton herself. PolitiFact’s claim counts as false, for Gowdy did not go too far at all. PolitiFact’s interpretation of Gowdy’s claim counts as a straw man, and we charge PolitiFact with taking Gowdy’s statement out of context.
Carroll, Lauren. “Benghazi Committee Chair: State Dept. Hasn’t Complied with 6-month-old Document Request.” PolitiFact.com. Tampa Bay Times, 21 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.
“Letter to Trey Gowdy from the State Department.” Democrats.benghazi.house.gov. N.p., 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.
“Interim Progress Update.” Benghazi.house.gov. 08 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.
“Virtual Reading Room Documents Search Results ‘Clinton Email’” : U.S. Department of State. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.